StoryCorps traveled to Alaska in February to record the voices of our service men and women.
This story comes to us from Fort Wainwright. The Army brought Marti Steury to Fairbanks in 1975.
Life as a woman on an Army base wasn’t easy. Marty talks about her decision to enlist, and what it was like to wear a uniform during the Vietnam War.
“I was 18 years old and I had just gotten married. I was working three different jobs, and my husband had just had a back surgery. I saw a billboard walking down the street that said, ‘Go where you want to go. Be what you want to be.’ And I knew for a fact that I wasn’t where I wanted to be and I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do.
“So I went in and talked to recruiters and asked them if I could jump out of planes! Because I always wanted to do that and it’s an expensive hobby. And they said, ‘Oh gosh, we must test you. We’re not sure if women can jump out of planes.’
“And I also said I wanted to go to Alaska. And they said you can either go to Alaska or you can jump out of planes. And I said my preference was to go to Alaska. And they handed me two sets of books that were probably 6 to 8 inches tall and said, ‘Pick a job.’ And the job that I picked was finance and accounting.
“I remember going home and telling my father that I’d joined the Army. I’ll never forget the reaction he had. He looked at me with a blank face and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Women do not go into the military. What were you thinking?’ (He) basically wanted to disown me.
“I remember buying a new pickup truck in Indiana, leaving Ft. Ben Harrison, driving home, building a camper shell on the back of it and reporting for duty here at Ft. Wainwright on June 20, 1975, with a footlocker and a duffle bag. I was a private, and I wasn’t authorized to have a husband or any kind of housing or anything. So we ended up tracking down someone we’d been on the ferry with and ended up living in a tent. It ended up costing $150 a month to pitch a tent in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1975. So we spent a couple of months living in the tent and then got housing at the university. And my husband was going to school there and so we spent a year living in married student housing.
“I remember coming home more often than not and waiting for the lobby for the dorm elevator and getting cat-called and called bad names while I was standing there in my uniform, from students.
“In ’75 it was a two-fold thing. One of them was, there was so much opposition to Vietnam, that wearing a uniform — whether you were male or female — you were basically a target. And then the female part of it kind of added to it. When you told people that you were in the military, they went, ‘oh, you’re one of them.’ You were kind of left with the impression that you were, you know, you were a slut. Or you were trying to find a husband. You didn’t have a brain. There was no reason you were there other than to get something or to be used by people. And it was really disgusting.
“I had the privilege of having an extremely alcoholic drill sergeant, who made life miserably for everybody. He was awful. The teamwork and the bond that happened between all of us who were trying to survive this guy — who really didn’t believe that women should be in the Army, and that was his goal — we showed him off. None of us scratched. We were all there and we actually started winning awards.
“The thing that I was able to get, that I have to always acknowledge the military for, is the training they gave me in all the different aspects that weren’t just my job. You know, how to deal with people. How to be involved with a large group of people that you have only one thing in common with, your job. And how to be able to interact and find ways to work around that and maintain what you were trying to get out of it and not just what they wanted from you.
“I was the third person in my office, the third woman, and the third woman on post who was not a nurse, to ever be stationed at Ft. Wainwright. And so today to see so many more women in the military is just really encouraging. But it wasn’t a happy time then.”
You’ve been listening to StoryCorps with service men and women of Alaska. Marti Steury’s interview is archived at the Library of Congress.
Marti’s eight years at Ft. Wainwright kick-started a passion for sled dogs. The vet on base at the time was training for the Iditarod. Marti is currently the executive director of the Yukon Quest sled dog race. She’s owned 50 dogs in her lifetime, and is still counting.
This piece was edited by Dave Waldron at Alaska Public Media..